Showing posts with label taiwanese_fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label taiwanese_fiction. Show all posts

Monday, July 16, 2018

Like a Zen koan: a review of The Stolen Bicycle

Qing-era map of Taiwan, coastal view. From Jerome Keating's The Mapping of Taiwan
(I literally just took a photo of the page)

I'm not sure what to make of The Stolen Bicycle, and I suspect that's exactly how Wu Ming-yi intended it.

I mean, I'm not even sure if the story follows linear time or not. The basic plot - the unnamed youngest son of a family whose father disappeared thinks he might be able to find his father if he can find the bicycle that went missing with him - does have something of a timeline. Nothing else does, nor is it meant to: because memories both individual and collective simply don't do that. That's what they are - scattered memories of scattered people, sometimes sharing with each other. To call them flashbacks would be reductive.

The thing is, not only does he find the bicycle fairly early on in the narrative - meaning that the story put forward in the synopsis is not the story at all, but the bicycle hadn't been stolen. His father had taken it when he left. And he had known that when he set out. Of course, that's the point. There are other stories: break-ups that lovers never quite get over, the story of elephants at the old Japanese zoo near Yuanshan and their march from Burma, a war photographer's ride down the Malayan peninsula on an old Japanese military bike. Past stories of stolen bicycles, at least one of which returned. Some stories conclude, some don't. People die or are damaged, some beyond repair. Others can be refurbished. The characters trudge on.

So what is the point? I don't think Wu intends to tell us: we are meant to meditate on this almost scrap-book like collection of memories, like journal entries, interspersed with notes on the history of bicycling and zoo animals and World War II in Taiwan, along with the occasional diagram. Like Shizuko's three-dimensional side-perspective map of the Taipei Zoo, you're not meant to see it as a treasure map to X or as a plot from a bird's eye view, but as though you are flying past it on a helicopter (or maybe approaching it from the Maokong gondola, which is explicitly referenced as not having been built yet when the map in question was drawn).

Or like those old maps of the Taiwan coast, that show the shore from the perspective they'd have approached it, from the beach back to the mountains which create the spiky horizon past which nothing can be seen.

I don't mean to imply that the book has no themes - although I've just spent several paragraphs waffling about without saying what they are. There is discussion of how lives, just like bicycles (or elephants) wear out with use: and those bicycles are like our beasts of burden. Some parts get rusty, others jammed, others fall apart, some parts need replacing. Some bicycles - like lives - completely crap out and are scrapped. Others, with tender care, can be refurbished. In Taiwan, the local bicycle industry started out by importing from Japan, then imitating it, then creating its own models.

There are butterflies - a fictionalized memory within a memory - linked to Taiwan's handicraft history (though I have never seen a "butterfly wing collage" myself). The more butterfly lives that are sacrificed, the more beautiful the result.

And there is World War II: a lot of lives were sacrificed in that. Was the result, when it comes to Taiwan, beautiful?


I don't know how else to describe The Stolen Bicycle except in these scraps of thought, and I'm leaving a lot out (I still don't understand the scene that was either in a flooded basement or the bottom of a river, nor the relationship between fine craftsmanship and wild jungle animals - though I am sure there is one). I can't imagine it was meant to be any other way.

So if this review is a bit weird, forgive me. The book is a bit weird too.

I liked it, though. It rattles around in your head after reading, like a very long Zen koan. It's not meant to make perfect logical sense, I guess. It's Taiwan from a littoral view. It seems intent on pushing you to think in paradoxes, to reach a point where you can intuitively grasp an answer that is logically impossible.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Are there false churches, too? A review of The Man With The Compound Eyes (複眼人)

The Man With The Compound Eyes (復眼人)
Wu Ming-yi
(available at eslite)

As I plow through books on Taiwan before my leaving date (about a month from now), I've been intentionally alternating between fiction and non-fiction. After finishing Accidental State (and breezing through The Mapping of Taiwan), I came upon this small volume with a gorgeous cover. After hearing high praise for the quality of the translation, I decided it would be the fiction filling to my Accidental State / Taiwan's Imagined Geography sandwich.

And it's true, the translation is wonderful. If I hadn't known it hadn't been written originally in English, I wouldn't have guessed as much. It's engaging and eminently readable, in fact, I'd say it is a pleasure to read on nearly a conscious level.

The characters, especially, are well-drawn, their backstories draw you in, although I had to smile at the trope of the novelist making the main character of their novel an English professor who is also a writer - write what you know, I guess. I appreciated that, for a novel set in Taiwan, most of the characters were in fact not ethnically "Chinese": the novel was heavily, and purposely, aboriginal and yet not exclusively that.

I'm not quite sure what to make of the story, so I'll start with this: it was engaging. I only actually give books perhaps 50 pages to draw me in; if I'm not hooked by then, I usually don't finish. I have better things to do than read a book I'm not that interested in. The Man with the Compound Eyes had me from page one.

But what was it about exactly? I'm still not sure. The clearest theme seemed to be that of god as nature, and different people's relationship to it - the god of this novel is one that not only does not live up in the sky and have a beard and rain down hellfire, but rather who lives in the mountains, the jungles and the oceans, but also one that is not an active creator or intervener. Somewhat simplistically, those with the strongest relationship to nature/god seem to be the Taiwan indigenous and fictional island characters (I'm not saying this is necessarily wrong, although I don't believe in god, it's just something of a well-worn trope), with Westerners and ethnically "Chinese" Taiwanese being furthest from.

Caution: ahead there be spoilers

I'm also not sure, other than another "untouched natives living simply with nature and no knowledge of the outside world" narrative what the journey of Atil'ei was really supposed to mean for the larger story: did his meeting with Alice, at which point he as a fleshed-out character nearly disappears from the narrative, serve to bring her to some deeper understanding of nature? If so, perhaps that could have been explored a bit more. I am generally a fan of subtlety but rather than picking up subtle cues about the point of the story, I ended up feeling mostly confused, as though a missing, hidden chapter I was supposed to have read, but didn't. A lot of ancillary characters seem to do a lot without really adding much to the narrative if you don't make big metaphorical leaps in trying to consider what it all means. I felt in one case it really could be boiled down to "engineer who helped build the Xueshan Tunnel heard a weird sound back then, returned to Taiwan, and decided he should not try to find out what that sound was". Okay, I guess?

Overall, I felt the backstory leading up to the arrival of the trash vortex on Taiwan to be the most satisfying, and the most engaging in terms of reading about how another person views and sees certain aspects of life in Taiwan, most notably, I felt a lot of my own sentiments reflected in the description of the east coast town, the shantytown by the river in Taipei, and what it means to have a "homestay". The characterization was likewise enjoyable - the friends-or-more relationship between Dahu and Hafay was handled with subtlety and grace. Backstory was well-handed: engaging, thoughtful (each person has their own 'island'), not overly cumbersome but deep enough to count.

I was less satisfied with the story of Atil'ei's island love, Rasula. Her story felt like it hit a big random dead-end and served no real narrative purpose other than to keep her in the story a bit longer. I had expected they'd either meet again or she'd encounter some sort of worthwhile adventure, or that we'd find out what happened to Atil'ei as he left Taiwan and began sailing back to an island that (spoiler!) will no longer exist by the time he gets there, if he ever does. Neither comes to pass. It just ends. It doesn't feel like that story thread ever fully gels with the rest of what's going on in any satisfying, conclusive way. I especially feel that we're forced out of Alice's headspace - even in a first-person narrative told by her! - for that part of the novel, and never really get a sense of the impact Atil'ei has had on her.

Yes, this story comes with a twist - but I'm writing about it at the very end because it probably had the least impact on me in any deeper emotional sense. It could have worked in a longer novel, but here it felt unearned, like Wu felt he needed something like that to happen, so *poof*, it did. Alice's experiences after finding the cliff where her husband died felt rushed through, the realizations not supported much by the narrative that had come before.

All in all, The Man With The Compound Eyes is worth reading (and honestly, it won't take you long. It is not a tome by any means). It feels very Taiwanese, and very connected to this country and the experience of living here, and specifically very 21st-century Taiwanese, with its focus on local, non-Chinese culture, environmentalism, small towns and everything that sort of embodies a post-industrial Taiwan that is so very over Taipei, choosing instead a smaller city or one's hometown.

It also feels very Taiwanese in its narrative subtlety. It is entirely possible that I didn't feel I fully understood the integration of the storylines because so much was left purposely unsaid, and I was meant to connect the dots in a way that someone of this culture might perhaps be able to do, but which eludes this straight-to-the-point, no-stone-unturned New Yorker.

By all means, read it, and if you figure out What It All Means on a deeper level than I've tried to express here, let me know.